A 2014 Primer: How to Talk Politely about 2016

AP Photo/Mel Evans

It could be Uncle Fred from Cincinnati who button-holes you at a Christmas dinner or your best friend from college who demands an answer during the pre-New Year’s Eve cocktail hour. But whatever your inner resolve—no matter how fierce your determination—you won’t be able to get through the entire holiday season without being asked to make a pronouncement about the 2016 election.

Blood relatives and former roommates won’t let you off the hook with correct, but evasive, responses like “It’s too soon to tell” or “Ask me again in the fall of 2015.” You’re expected to have strong opinions about the unknowable future, just like the preening talkers on cable TV.

We’ve all been there. And after a few glasses of holiday cheer, you end up offering a prediction that you immediately regret such as saying with ersatz precision, “Hillary will defeat Marco Rubio with 378 electoral votes, even after giving the Republicans Florida.”

That saying of the sooth inevitably produces an angry challenge from an obsessive Morning Joe fan certain that it will be Chris Christie. Then from the end of the table somebody shouts that they heard from a friend who goes to a hairdresser to the stars that Hillary won’t run. Suddenly, you’re stuck in the Vietnam of holiday arguments defending a 2016 forecast that you don’t believe and wish you never made.

Fortunately, there is a better way. Here are 11 comments that you can make right now about the 2016 presidential race that sound definitive, especially when delivered in an assertive tone. But they actually commit you to nothing other than appropriate humility about divining the future.

 

The most popular verb in the Clinton White House was “revisit” as in “Let’s revisit that decision.”

This indecisiveness more reflected Bill Clinton’s personality than Hillary’s internal makeup. But when it comes to politics, the Clintons remain a matched set (“Buy one, get one free”). Hillary knows that any decision about running for president can be undone until the moment she makes her formal announcement. What this means is that she may well change her mind several times during 2014 making the resulting rumor-mongering even less reliable than it is now.

 

No one—not even Hillary Clinton—is ever handed a presidential nomination by acclamation.

Aside from incumbent presidents, every White House nominee since Richard Nixon in 1960 has had to face a serious opponent in the primaries. That includes sitting vice presidents like George H.W. Bush (Bob Dole was his stubborn 1988 rival) and Al Gore (Bill Bradley came within 6,000 votes of winning the 2000 New Hampshire primary). So if Hillary runs, she is almost certain to have, at minimum, a few dicey weeks when her nomination appears in question.

 

The nation’s most successful Democratic governor has not ruled out a 2016 race.

Sure, Jerry Brown will turn 78 during the 2016 primaries. But he did battle Bill Clinton through the June 1992 California primary—and gleefully attacked Hillary’s legal work for banking clients in Arkansas. If in the unlikely case that he actually ran, Brown would be going after the presidency 40 years after his initial White House attempt. In 1976, when Brown swept four late primaries against Jimmy Carter, Ted Cruz was five years old.

 

Here are two powerful words to stifle any serious talk about the early 2016 preference polls—Joe Lieberman.

In April 2003 (nine months before the 2004 Iowa caucuses), Joe Lieberman led the pack with the support of nearly one quarter of all Democrats in a national Gallup Poll. Three years later, he couldn’t even get nominated by his own party for reelection to the Senate. The history of Joe-mentum remains my favorite example that early polls measure little beyond name recognition.

 

NSA snooping is the issue with the greatest potential to roil the 2016 primaries in both parties.

Much has been written about the coming clash between Rand Paul libertarians and the Dick Cheney-John McCain-Mitt-Romney national security hawks in the Republican Party. But the ongoing NSA story, fueled by Edward Snowden’s seemingly inexhaustible cache of documents, also holds the potential to split the Obama administration from the Democratic Party’s liberal base. If Hillary or Joe Biden run, the NSA is an issue that may prompt as much frenzied repositioning as their votes in favor of the Iraq War did in 2008.

Who might be this anti-NSA Democratic crusader? Wave off that kind of specificity by mentioning that no one imagined at this point in the presidential cycle that Howard Dean would be the 2004 anti-war candidate or that Obama would take on Hillary

 

Predicting the mood of the voters two years before the Iowa caucuses is a mug’s game.

Okay, this assertion contradicts the NSA point above. But remember—you’re not trying to ace a course in logic, you’re trying to hold your own at the family Christmas dinner. So point out how dramatically the pendulum of national politics has shifted this fall from the folly of the GOP’s government shutdown to the incompetence of the rollout of Obamacare.

 

Who decides to run plays as big a role in determining the nomination as who wins Iowa or New Hampshire.

Mitt Romney was the GOP nominee partly because six potentially serious rivals decided, for a variety of reasons, to skip 2012—Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and Mike Huckabee. Had any of these men entered the race, that decision would have altered the contours and ideological positioning of the primaries. The hardest thing for armchair touts to remember is that not all bold-faced names in the political pages actually run for president. Mario Cuomo had a plane waiting on the tarmac to fly him from Albany to New Hampshire to enter the primary in December 1991. The Cuomo plane never took off, but Bill Clinton’s candidacy did as a result. Sometimes politicians feel it’s not their year (Christie in 2012), sometimes there are hidden skeletons and sometimes, shockingly enough, they lack what Walter Mondale  called “the fire in the belly.”

 

No one runs for vice president.

The best way to be tapped for vice president is to confound expectations and not grab for the brass ring. The strategy: Be discussed as a serious White House contender until the moment you bow out citing family obligations or the press of congressional business. That’s what worked for Mondale (1976), Gore (1992), Jack Kemp (1996), and Paul Ryan. No one in politics likes to lose—just ask Rick Perry. Biden is the only modern candidate who wanted to run for president in the worst way (and did) only to be saved by a VP nod. And a strong case can be made that Obama chose Biden despite his 1 percent showing in the 2008 Iowa caucuses rather than because of his Chris Dodd-like finish.

 

Being governor is the best stepping stone to the White House, but it’s also a job where reputations can tarnish overnight.

For 28 of the last 37 years, a former governor has occupied the Oval Office. But being governor also means that you face political risks far greater than hitting the wrong button on a Senate roll-call vote. No one could have guessed that a week-long September traffic jam on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge would be traced back to apparent vengeance by a Chris Christie appointee against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee. Or that Martin O’Malley, who had been touting his administrative skills as Maryland governor, would suddenly be presiding over a badly misfiring state-run healthcare exchange.

 

Social media will successfully replace expensive television buys for an under-funded 2016 contender.

Not since Dean discovered Internet fund-raising in 2003 has a long-shot presidential candidate exploited the political potential of the web. Yes, Obama was the King of Social Media in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. But he was also a candidate adept at raising money and blessed with passionate army of volunteers. The standard up-from-nowhere model is Rick Santorum in 2012, a candidate who won Iowa by spending endless time talking to voters face-to-face. A safe prediction: Some candidate is going to use Facebook or its equivalent to accomplish online in 2016 what Santorum did the old-fashioned way by touring the Pizza Ranches of Iowa.

 

When all else fails—and you’re cornered at Christmas dinner—here’s one last thing that you can say about 2016:

“Hillary will defeat Marco Rubio with 378 electoral votes.” If the eggnog is ample and the wine flows freely, there’s always the hope that no one will remember your silly prediction.

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